We did the Salkantay Trek in December 2016, without an agency or guide, and it was a real adventure. Do not underestimate this hike - it is definitely a challenge, all the more so because you are carrying all your own gear and food, at very high altitudes.
Prepare yourself for this hike, especially if you're going in the wet season and get ready to discover a little of what you're made of doing the Salkantay Trek on your own.
What I'll cover:
- Hike Overview
- Where to Sleep
- Wet Season vs Dry Season
- Equipment List and Where to Rent
- Hike Menu
It's a long, very-detailed read. Skip to the section that you so need, should it please ya, sirs and ladies. :)
1. Hike Overview
Day 1: Cusco - Mollepata - Soraypampa
Get to the bus stop in Cusco (pictured below) at 5AM; our collectivo left for Mollepata by 5:40AM. Once at the location, ask around for the van that goes to Mollepata. The trip to Mollepata takes 2.5 - 3 hours and costs 15 soles per person.
TIP: Download an app called 'maps.me' for offline mapping. You can find "Autobus a Mollepata" on it, and it also has the Salkantay hiking route on it.
You’ll be dropped off in the plaza of Mollepata and hikers usually have breakfast there. If you need to take one last pre-hike poo, this is your moment.
From Mollepata, you have three options to get to Soraypampa, the campsite for the first night:
- Take a taxi. You can take a taxi the full way up (70 sols) or haggle to go part of the way up and hike the rest
- Hitch a ride with a tour group. If a tour has free space, catch a ride with them for free / a small price (e.g. 15 sols). Tours take their groups part of the way and then hike the last few hours.
Walk to Soraypampa: This will take 6 - 8 hours of uphill walking. To get on the trail, these are the directions provided by Sayonara Pushek: "At the square we headed up the street in front of the church until we reached a T. This was where we saw the first blue sign marking the trail."
Whichever way you get onto the trail, it is fairly clear. If you have maps.me, it's also on there so you can keep track.
Day 2: Soraypampa - Salkantay Pass - Chaullay
Today is said to be the toughest and longest day of the trek.
It begins with a gruelling 3-5 hour uphill hike from Soraypampa (3800m) to the Salkantay Pass (4600m). 3 hours is at a brisk pace; your heart rate will be fast, palms will be sweaty, knees weak, arms will be heavy. However if you're like me and basically crawl along, expect 5 hours.
Be warned that around the pass, the weather may be rainy and cold, no matter the season. Also be warned that this day can be the breaker of relationships. Mr. Human is a much faster walker than me and naturally ditched me when it started to rain. The raindrops mixed in with my tears and the cracking of the thunder only just covered the cracking of my heart.
The next part is a 4-5 hour descent to the small village of Chaullay (2900m).
That means the total for the day is around 7-10 hours of just hiking. I recommend starting at 6am.
Day 3: Chaullay - La Playa - (Lucmabamba)
There is a road from Chaullay to La Playa, and you'll start Day 3 by walking on this road for a little bit. Day 3 is through cloud forests, either by the road or via the trail.
We took the trail, which you can find on maps.me. Whilst it is not exactly precise at times, it helps in pointing you in the right direction. Warning: There are a couple of confusing forks in the trail - in general, we advise choosing the fork going UPHILL (yes, alas, even if it looks insanely steep and never-ending). Usually the forks going downhill led us to a dead-end at the river. So either find a tour group to tag onto or be ready to do some route exploring.
However, if you walk on the road from Chaullay for 30-40 mins, Sayonara Pushek says that there are "two beautiful swimming pools nestled next to the river... entry is S/.5 per person and we were completely alone". If you feel inclined to, this might be a great way to soak and relax mid-way through the hike!
About 4-5 hours from Chaullay, you finally reach La Playa, a small town with shops, restaurants and a few campsites. If you stay in La Playa you'll be able to get a nice dinner and hot shower at your campsite.
However, we didn't really like the feel of La Playa and kept going onwards to Lucmabamba. Lucmabamba is home to all the coffee plantations! At the end of La Playa, there is an intersection and you go RIGHT to get to Lucmabamba. You'll cross a bridge first and then begin the climb uphill.
It's about 30 minutes uphill walking before you get to the first houses/campsites of Lucmabamba.
It was coffee galore at the plantation we stayed at: learning about the process, taste tests, purchasing fresh coffee beans. I enjoyed talking to the family a lot - 3 generations living there in a quiet coffee community. The families in the community take turns to go to each other's farms to help out.
(Optional Extra Day): La Playa - LLactapata
If you have a spare day and want to take the trek at a more relaxed pace, I'd recommend doing this extra day! Stay in La Playa for Day 3, then walk 4 - 5 hours from La Playa to Llactapata. It is all very very uphill (4 if you walk at a steady pace, 5 or more if you walk slower). You'll be walking along an old Inca trail towards Llactapata where youĺl find small, tranquil ruins from where you can catch a first glimpse of Machu Picchu.
At Llactapata, you can have lunch there and then descend about 10 minutes to a campsite, which should have water, snacks and toilet available. According to Thrifty Drifters "It's one of the best campspots I've ever camped on. The view of Machu Picchu is just amazing." We unfortunately didn't do this but if you'd like to check out Thrifty Drifter's first hand experience, you can see it here.
I personally think this is a great option because you'll spread out the hiking over more days, ensuring that you aren't overly worn down and in great condition for Machu Picchu.
Day 4: (Lucmabamba) - Llactapata - Hidroelectrica - Aguas Calientes
From Lucmabamba, it's about a 3.5 - 4.5 hour walk uphill to Llactapata along an old Incan trail. As mentioned above, Llactapata are some cool little ruins from which you can first see Machu Picchu.
Then it's a 2 hour walk downhill to Hidroelectrica.
Mr. Human and I actually decided not to do this part of the trek because we'd fallen sick from our wet sleeping bags. Instead, we took a taxi from Lucmabamba to Hidroelectrica. It cost us 50 soles ($USD 15) and I admit it... Worth. It.
If you're feeling tired at this point in the trek, you can also go to the main road and try offload some of your stuff to tour group vans to wait for you at Hidroelectrica. Sayonara Pushek loaded one of their backpacks for 10 sols. When you're doing the Salkantay on your own, it's the heavy backpacks that really really gets to you.
From Hidroelectrica to Agua Calientes, it's a 2.5 - 3.5 hour walk along train tracks:
- 2 hours if you walk at a very fast pace non-stop
- 2.5 hours if you walk at a normal-fast pace
- 3 - 4 hours if you walk at a slow pace / are blistered and sore
The first time I did this, I was imagining a swift and easy walk, being a 5-time award winning walker and all. Alas, the walk took me 4 hours and I was limping the whole time. From what I know, many people tire during this last stretch. So start the hopes low; aim for 10 hours and then you can be pleasantly surprised.
Once in Aguas Calientes, buy your Machu Picchu tickets from the ticket office (open 5:30am - 8:30pm). You can buy it the day before or on the same day (in low season, at least). Tickets for adults is 152 sols. If you have an International Student Card (ISIC), remember to bring it as student tickets are 77 sols.
After that, it's time for some sweet sweet illing-chay - Pig Latin for chilllinnngg, sistahs and bruthas.
Day 5: Aguas Calientes - Machu Picchu - Hidroelectrica - (Cusco)
Start the day with a nice breakfast (if you don't want to have it at your hostel, the 2nd level of the market is the cheapest place to eat) and try get a packed lunch somewhere.
Aguas Calientes - Machu Picchu
From Aguas Calientes, you first walk about 30 mins downhill to the bridge below Machu Picchu. They'll check your passports and ticket (and ISIC card if applicable) here, so DON'T forget any of these.
Then it's a 1 hour walk up Incan stairs. It's ALL stairs but it is beautiful. If you didn't grab a packed lunch, there should be a lady selling small sandwiches for 5 sols once you reach the top of the stairs.
Info about Machu Picchu
The least busiest times at Machu Picchu is sunrise and in the late afternoon (around 2:30 - 4pm). Your ticket is valid for entry between 6am - 4pm.
There is luggage storage in Machu Picchu. Right outside the entrance gates it's 5 sol, but there's also one just after the entrance for cheaper (around 3 sols, from memory).
TIP: There's a restaurant at the bridge, before you do all the stairs. Therefore, one option could be to bring your big backpacks and ask to store it there. I didn't try this but, if it's possible, it'd be worth doing because it'd save you 40-60 mins of walking which you'd have to do if you left them in Aguas Calientes and had to go there and back to pick them up. This way, you just pick them up from this restaurant and then immediately start the walk back to Aguas Calientes.
Taking the bus up to Machu Picchu
If you'd prefer not to do this uphill walk, you can take a bus from Aguas Calientes costing around $12 USD one way. If you're very tired, bus-ing up and then walking back down is probably a good option.
Choosing a tour guide
Before you enter Machu Picchu, there will be guides waiting around the gates. Not sure of exact prices as we didn't get one. From what I know, it's about 80-90 soles for a 4 person group (Spanish-speaking guide). An English-speaking guide will be more expensive than a Spanish-speaking one.
We had a lot of fun without a guide anyways. It's very easy to spend a lot of time at Machu Picchu. You can sit on the terraces and enjoy a snack.
You can walk to the Sun Gate (1 hour walking from the entrance - one way).
You can walk to the Incan Bridge (45 min walk from the entrance - one way) and check that out. If you're expecting a huge bridge, don't. The Incans decided that this cliff face would be a great spot for one of their roads. Locoo.
Then, of course, you can wander through the city of Machu Picchu itself.
Seeing Machu Picchu at sunrise
Some people want to see Machu Picchu at sunrise, in order to be one of the first few people there and see it without so many tourists around. If you'd like to do this, you'll likely have to leave Aguas Calientes by 4 - 4:30 am to ensure you are one of the first few people at the bridge (which opens at 5am).
Then, once the bridge opens, you'll have to race up the stairs to get to Machu Picchu before it opens at 6am. If you're one of the first few people when it opens, you can go right in and enjoy all its glory to yourself.
My friends did this and you can read about their experience here.
Getting back to Hidroelectrica
After you finish Machu Picchu, you take the stairs back down to the bridge. We jogged down and it took us about 25 minutes. Then you walk back to Hidroelectrica:
- If you don't need to go back to Aguas Calientes, can be done in 1.75 hours if you walk very fast, more likely 2.5 - 3 hours since you'll be tired after all the walking
- If you need to go back to Aguas Calientes, add an extra 40-60 minutes of walking
Hidroelectrica to Cusco
The journey back from Hidroelectrica passes through the following towns with the individual collectivo prices:
- Hidroelectrica - Santa Theresa (1 hour): About 5 sols
- Santa Theresa - Santa Maria (1 hour)
- Santa Maria - Ollantaytambo (2 hours)
- Ollantaytambo - Cusco (2 hours): 8 - 10 sols
From Hidroelectrica, you can take a collectivo directly to Cusco, which will be about 6-7 hours in total. We arrived back at Hidroelectrica around 4pm and there were still people offering rides. We didn't take a collectivo back as we have our own car but the Peru Tourist Info said it'd be about 40 - 60 soles p/p.
Alternatively, you can take a collectivo from Hidroelectrica to Santa Theresa (1 hour) for 5 sols. This is what I was quoted by a driver I walked past but I read a blog that said they paid 15 sols. Depends on your luck but from all the collectivos I've taken, 15 sols is definitely a rip off.
From Santa Theresa, you can look for a collectivo to Cusco (journey takes around 5 hours). There's a risk there might not be many, but with Machu Picchu being so popular, you can try take your chances.
I'd also either bring dinner/snacks from Aguas Calientes or buy in Santa Theresa if you stop over because you're not going to get back to Cusco until late at night.
Alternative: Staying in Ollantaytambo
I absolutely love Ollantaytambo and would fully recommend this if you have some spare time! We volunteered here for a month so we know a few lovely things to do there. ;) Ollantaytambo is in the Sacred Valley - one of the most fertile and beautiful places in Peru. A few days here after Machu Picchu is a great way to relax and enjoy more Peruvian culture.
Two ways to get there:
- As described above and then collectivo from Hidroelectrica - Ollantaytambo (4 hours)
- Train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo for $USD 45 p/p (We bought last min tickets in the low season - December. Arrive at train station 8AM to buy tickets for $45, train departs 8:30AM.)
2. Where to stay
Day 1: Soraypampa
- First campsite you pass (owned by Lima Tours), right after the gigantic hotel: This is where we stayed because we'd become friends with a Lima Tours group and they welcomed us. No covered spots for tents, however the surroundings are open and lovely. 10 sols including covered shelter area, toilet and tap facilities
- Third campsite: Big sheltered area for tents, and a big building for you to cook and eat inside of. They also have a little store ('tienda') that sells snacks and such. There will likely be other tour groups with you here. 10 sols including cover camp spot for tents, toilet and tap facilities and covered dining area.
- 30 mins walk after Soraypampa: You can free camp anywhere along the river (more recommended in the dry season)
Day 2: Chaullay (or before)
While Chaullay is the end goal for Day 2, there are opportunities to set up camp earlier, if you do not want to/cannot go so far in one day:
- Around 2.5 - 3 hours after the Salkantay Pass, there is a paid campsite with covered camping spots and a small shelter. You'll spot these there:
- 15 minutes after the above, there is a picnic spot with many covered roofs. While it is not made for camping as the floor is uneven stone, we camped there as we wanted the space to dry all our things:
- About 30 mins - 1 hour after the above (not sure of exact time), there are small ruins to camp on. There is no cover in this campsite so if it's raining, stick with the above two or go to Chaullay. However, if it's nice weather, this is a nice spot to camp among ruins.
If you can make it to Chaullay, I would say it's worth it. All the camping there is spaciously sheltered, there are lines to hang up wet stuff and you can even get a hot dinner, coffee/tea, beers, breakfast, etc. I don't know the exact cost of everything as we didn't stay there, only that tea is S/ 3, beer is S/ 10 and dinner S/ 10. After a hard days hiking, ya deserve it, matey.
Day 3: La Playa or Lucmabamba
- La Playa: Feel free to browse around, if you stay in La Playa you'll be able to get a nice dinner and hot shower at your campsite. If you'd like to see an example, you can read about the Thrifty Drifter's stay there.
- Lucmabamba: Coffee plantation heaven! Under the recommendation of our guide friend, we climbed an extra 15 minutes after the first house of Lucmabamba to get to the campsite of "Cafe Viamonte". It was up beautiful Incan stairways and our plantation was home to some of the richest coffee yum yum.
(Optional extra day): Llactapata
- Staying in the small Incan ruins of Llactapata.
Day 4: Aguas Calientes
If you want to camp around Aguas Calientes, these are the two options:
- Municipal campground: about 20 minutes before Aguas Calientes
- Los Jardines de Mandor: about 45 mins (3km) before Aguas Calientes
If ya want to treat yourself to a room, I say go for it, ya deserve it sonnies!
Our wholehearted recommendation is Hostal Cusi Qoyllor. We didn't book ahead, both times we've stayed there we just walked up and got a matrimonial for 60 sols (Note: this is during low season). However they are a popular place, so if you go during high season I recommend calling ahead to book a room (don't go through Booking.com, it's more expensive). Breakfast is 10 sols p/p and towel hire is 5 sols / towel (however, both times we got towels thrown in for free, for some reason). Warning: The hostal is a short uphill walk from the town center.
If you're looking for cheaper dorm options:
- Hostal Inti Wasi (15 sols per person)
- Hospedaje Veronica (20 sols per person)
3. wet season vs dry season
The dry season: Late April - Early October
The busiest time will be from May - September, but during then you'll have the best chance for good weather (however expect very cold nights, down to -6 degrees Celsius). However, even in the dry season, you should be prepared for rain as the weather can get very changeable at such high altitude.
The wet season: Late October - April
Shoulder months such as October/November and April would be a good time to go, with not too much rain and less people.
Once you head into December, January and February, the rain becomes quite intense with a majority of days raining (and raining a lot). As a bonus, there is less people during the wet seasons. We saw other hikers when we went in December but it was minimal and never ever felt crowded.
If you are going during the wet season, I recommend garbage-bagging everything inside your pack, even if you have a rain cover. Indivdually garbage bag your sleeping bag and clothes.
You can read through the story of our Salkantay Trek and how it rained everyday and soaked our sleeping bags. Itĺl help give you an idea of what to expect. And while it was immensely tough, it did make for one of the experiences we remember most vividly and fondly.
4. Equipment List and renting
I've outlined everything we brought on our hike (besides food and water) here:
For gear rental, we went to Rosely on Calle Procuradores, next to the Plaza de Armas. We rented a sleeping bag for 5 sols / day, which is the best price we found after checking 10+ places. On top of that, we met another girl doing the Salkantay on her own who rented everything (tent, sleeping bag, boots, camping stove, etc.) for 25 sols / day from Rosely. She got a bargain as she was renting more but Rosely does the best prices for sure! :)
If you want to invest and buy gear, there's a store called Tattoo Adventure, they sell high-quality branded camping items but is obviously more expensive. I also bought a North Face zip-off hiking pants for 75 sols (I am certain they are not real but they look and work well) from one of the stores in Calle Plateros (the store sold heaps of other North Face stuff - even rain jackets for 100 sols).
5. Hike menu
Here is a link to my guide on a multi-day hiking menu. It's based on what we took on the Salkantay Trek, so all the items can be found in Cusco. Note: We brought a camping stove with us.
More specifically, for the Salkantay Trek, the below lays out which meals need to be brought with you (non-italicised) whilst the italicised indicates opportunities where you can buy a meal.
Day 1: Breakfast (in Mollepata), Lunch, Dinner
Day 2: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner (only if you camp in Chaullay; if you don't you will have to bring your own food)
Day 3: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner (only if you camp in La Playa, might be possible to buy dinner and bring with you if you want to camp elsewhere)
Day 4: Breakfast, Lunch (in Hidroelectrica - depending if you can make it the 5-6 hours walking to Hidroelectrica without lunch, just on snacks), Dinner (if you stay in Aguas Calientes)
Day 5: Breakfast (if you stay in Aguas Calientes), Lunch (brought from AC to Machu Picchu), Dinner (from AC/Hidroelectrica)
We were able to get water every day of the hike, either fill up at campsites or villages you pass through. There are natural sources of water, however, we avoided drinking this if we could as there is a lot of animal/faeces all over the trail that could easily get in the water.
Note: We brought a Steripen with us, which is a UV light pen which you can use to sterilise water.
- Sleeping bag rental (25 sols)
- Food (125 sols)
- Bus to Mollepata (30 sols - 15 sols p/p)
- Breakfast in Mollepata (30 sols - 15 sols p/p)
- Campsite (10 sols)
- No expenses as we camped for free
- Campsite (5 sols)
- Taxi to Hidroelectrica (we skipped the walk and took a taxi instead haha...) (50 sols)
- Hostal Kusi Qoyllor in Aguas Calientes (60 sols)
- Machu Picchu tickets (229 sols - 152 sols for adult ticket, 77 sols for ISIC student ticket)
- Breakfast in hostal (20 sols - 10 sols p/p)
- Sandwiches (10 sols)
- Lunch (20 sols)
- Collectivos back to Cusco/Ollantaytambo (90 sols)
Total for everything:
744 sols ($USD 226) for 2 people
Hope that helps you guys planning your Salkantay Trek on your own! If you have any more questions or something you see here needs to be updated, feel free to let me know.
Get ready for an adventure. :)